Posted At: August 7, 2012 9:50 AM
by Julia Gardial
Social media is quickly becoming the center of many communication plans. The technology we have at our fingertips is sometimes astounding if one stops and thinks about the ultra-fast communication tools that have popped up from virtually nowhere in the past five years. Facebook and Twitter make one-to-one interaction a breeze, and analytics are becoming more robust every day, giving every PR practitioner the ever-sought-after ROI that can sometimes help us keep our budgets and jobs.
This digital phenomenon has created a deep and marked impact on our field in a way that nothing else ever has, and is changing very quickly every day. Facebook has gone through several user interface changes in the past years, most recently releasing the Facebook Timeline, forcing marketers and PR professionals to stay on their toes.
National Public Relations Student Society of America President Lauren Gray said that while she feels prepared to use the technology of today’s public relations world, she also thinks that it’s important for professors to be open to learning about some aspects of social media from their students.
“I know I can interact and use today’s PR technology based off experience and education I’ve received. Our classes on social media, blogging, InDesign and communication skills definitely help our students, and more universities should offer them,” Gray said. However, she noted that most of her social media analytics skills had been learned from internships and work experience.
In a 2010 blog article, Ashleigh Egan said that she understands the value of education, but students today need to realize that time in the classroom doesn’t equate to time in the workforce.
“…[W]e need to realize that classroom learning can’t do it all,” Egan said. “Especially if students want to pursue a specialized form of PR, they need to supplement the classroom with on-the-job experience to become a valuable consultant.”
Many undergraduate and graduate programs are doing great things with management and general PR theory, but how do we dive deeper? How do we make sure that the investments we make in education will pay off for us?
The answer, possibly, lies in the March 2010 study by the department of communications at the University of Maryland entitled, “A first look: An in-depth analysis of global public relations education.” After conducting a survey of public relations instructors from 20 countries, the authors pieced together the overall meaning of a communication education and how various programs are striving to provide the best for their students.
The study found that most of the instructors worked with programs that adhered to a five-course standard put forth by the Commission on Public Relations Education, meaning that they required at least five core PR courses in the public relations major. However, the courses listed on page 21 of the global public relations education survey did not include mandatory digital or experience-based classes. Despite this omission, the survey found that most of the programs they studied did offer a professional experience course.
“Regarding internships, almost all the participants included them as part of the undergraduate curriculum in public relations,” the survey said. “Those who did not have formal internships typically had some sort of professional or experiential component to a course.”
The educational system has understood and recognized that students need professional experience as well as technical training. Many programs offer these courses and, as students take advantage of them, they are gaining more and more of the specialized experience that Egan stated some were missing from the classroom. However, the Commission on Public Relations Education had some other things to say about technology.
Even before the social media explosion of the past few years, the commission recognized in 2006 the dynamic nature of the changing media PR practitioners use on an everyday basis:
“Technology and its use and abuse have become another important consideration in public relations practice. Students must not only understand current technology and its use, but must develop skills that will enable them to adapt to rapid changes and advancements. It is insufficient to train students to use current technology; they also must be able to identify and analyze new technologies as they emerge, understand the ramifications and implications and develop strategies for using the latest technologies and dealing with their effects. Technology will not be sufficiently addressed if isolated from the rest of the curriculum; the only effective way to prepare students for the rapid changes they will face is to integrate the study and use of technology across the curriculum.”
At the time that this passage was written, there were about 12 million active users on Facebook, whereas there are currently more than 900 million users on the social site. This statistic in no way measures the countless changes in interface, functionality and analytics that the site has been through since then.
Keith Miles has been working in public relations for 17 years at the same firm, McNeely, Pigott & Fox. He has seen the changes in technology as they’ve happened, and understands the necessity of using new media in his work.
“As digital has opened up so many new channels of communication,” Miles said. “When I first started in this business, getting a story in the newspaper and something on local television reached most target audiences.”
He explained that keeping up with digital trends is a “near-daily” job, but his firm works hard to keep even its most senior members in touch with changing tools. Because McNeely, Pigott & Fox has an in-house creative team, all of its employees know the ins and outs of social and digital media. On the topic of hiring practices, he said that the firm not necessarily looking for all-inclusive digital knowledge when they take on new hires.
“Our model has been to hire young people out of college and train them in the way we do PR. We continue to rely on that model for the most part. However, we are looking to our graduates to come to us with digital skills in addition to basic PR skills.”
That’s great news for graduates. Public relations programs are becoming more digitally integrated, while traditional PR training has stayed mostly intact, which is what employers are looking for these days.
The important thing for collegians to remember is that taking those optional internship courses are some of the best weapons for specialization and experience, which also really interest employers. As for social media, it’s important to stay up-to-date on current trends and do plenty of research outside the classroom.